100th Anniversary of the sinking of the s.s. Otaki

Post date: Apr 29, 2017 11:51:15 AM

2017 marks the centenary of the sinking of the New Zealand Shipping Company vessel s.s. Otaki by the German surface raider SMS Moewe.  The Otaki was a refrigerated cargo ship which in early 1917 was under the command of Captain Archibald Bisset Smith, sailing from the UK for Australia via the USA and the Panama Canal.  

On 10 March, while on route from London to New York, the Otaki was attacked by the the German surface raider, the Moewe. Rather than attempting to flee, the Otaki turned to engage.  Despite only being lightly armed, the Otaki managed to inflict serious damage on the enemy vessel before she was sunk. Captain Bisset Smith went down with his vessel and four other crew also lost their lives.  The remainder who had been on board were taken prisoner.

For his role in this action Captain Bisset Smith was awarded the Victoria Cross (the award being made in 1919 following a posthumous commission as a temporary Lieutenant in the Royal Navy Reserve).  The citation for the VC reads:

For most conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty when in command of the S.S. "Otaki," on the 10th March, 1917.


At about 2 30 p m on 10th March, 1917 the S.S. "Otaki," whose armament consisted of one 4.7 in gun for defensive purposes, sighted the disguised German raider "Moewe," which was armed with four 5.9 inch, one 4.1 inch and two 22 pdr guns, and two torpedo tubes. The "Moewe" kept the "Otaki" under observation for some time and finally called upon her to stop. This Lieutenant Smith refused to do, and a duel ensued at ranges of 1900-2000 yards, and lasted for about 20 minutes.


During this action, the "Otaki" scored several hits on the "Moewe," causing considerable damage, and starting a fire, which lasted for three days. She sustained several casualties and received much damage herself, and was heavilv on fire. Lieutenant Smith, therefore, gave orders for the boats to be lowered to allow the crew to be rescued. He remained on the ship himself and went down with her when she sank with the British colours still flying, after what was described in an enemy account as "a duel as gallant as naval history can relate."

Captain Bisset Smith's Victoria Cross is part of the P&O Heritage Collection in London.

Captain Bisset Smith had been a pupil at Robert Gordon's College in Aberdeen and since 1937 that college has awarded the Otaki Shield and a travel scholarship to one pupil.  The trip from the UK to New Zealand and back was originally provided by the New Zealand Shipping Company but with the introduction of containerisation on the ANZ route Overseas Containers Limited (OCL) took on that role.  Many will remember how OCL (then P&O Containers and then P&O Nedlloyd) carried the Otaki Scholar out to New Zealand and back.  From 2002 the tradition of the sea passage was broken with the recipient of the Otaki Shield award travelling by air.

Robert Gordon's College has produced a very interesting video covering the story of the s.s. Otaki, their illustrious former student Captain Bisset Smith and the history of the Otaki Shield award.

Aberdeen City Council have released a video showing how that city has marked the 100th anniversary.  Again, well worth a watch.

To commemorate the centenary the shipping magazine Seabreezes has published an excellent article which is well worth a read.  A section of that article can be accessed via the link below:

See also:

PONL Heritage would like to thank Ken Allwyn and SCARA for the suggested news item.